by Varsha Ramakrishan
The paint on the wall behind her is peeling. She sits in a blue plastic chair in the village women’s cooperative. As she looks out the window, the afternoon sun’s rays illuminate the left side of her body. The skin on her face and upper body is mottled, paper thin and covered with hyper-pigmented scar tissue. “I don’t look like this because of an accident,” she says. Twenty years ago her husband told her she hadn’t paid an adequate dowry, threw a bucket of kerosene on her and set her on fire.
Meera remembers burning until she fell unconscious.
Her husband then took her to the hospital. He gave her a choice—tell the truth and lose your children or lie so you can see them again. Meera lied.
Meera, 43, comes from a small village called Rajokri outside Delhi. It is a rural iron ore worker community of 12,800 people. She is a statistic who has not been counted—a sequestered victim of “dowry violence” or “bride burning.”
After the assault, Meera’s husband said: tell the truth and lose your children, Or lie and see them.
I witnessed the results of this violence firsthand seven years ago during my surgical rotation at a government hospital in Karnataka as a second-year medical student. The female burns ward was always full. The smell was unmistakable—a combination of betadine, silver sulfadiazine and burnt flesh. While dressing wounds, I heard stories of women immolated by their husbands or their in-laws because of an inadequate dowry or “groom price.”
The memory of that ward and the violence that these women suffered never left me. After earning my MPH last spring, I returned to India to unearth the stories of dowry violence victims. I traveled to the cities of Delhi and Mumbai and spoke to survivors, lawyers, NGO workers, doctors and patients to try to understand the problem and hopefully find seeds for its solution.
The practice of paying dowries in India is based on ancient tradition. It was originally a Hindu religious requirement in the Manusmriti, a text dating to 1500 BC that delineated the way of life and laws for Hindus. Among the ancient Hindus, presenting gifts to each other during a wedding was a required cultural practice. The daughter’s father was expected to expensively clothe and bejewel his daughter, and a son’s father was expected to give the bride’s family a cow and a bull.
Over time, when a woman left for her husband’s home, she was given money, jewelry and property (referred to as stree-dhan) to help ensure her financial independence after marriage. However the practice of dowry devolved from a means of financial emancipation for a bride to a modern system of transactions and groom prices, says Anjali Dave, an associate professor of Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai. “The woman has been disallowed control over the finances that she brought with her to the marriage,” Dave says. “Marriage is like a livelihood for [today’s] Indian woman.”
During negotiations between the groom’s and bride’s families, the “price” is agreed upon verbally and never as a written contract. (The practice of paying a dowry in India was outlawed in 1961.) Although the amount is paid to the groom’s family at the time of marriage, the demands often increase after the bride arrives at her husband’s home. If the demands are not met, the bride may suffer. “The violence ranges from brutal beatings, emotional torture, withholding money, throwing them out of the house, keeping them away from their children, keeping mistresses openly,” or in extreme cases, “burning the wife alive,” says Savra Subratikaan, a helpline worker at a women’s rights organization in New Delhi.
The National Crime Records Bureau of India reported 8,233 dowry deaths in 2012—in other words, one wife is killed every 60 minutes. However, since social and cultural taboos discourage women from reporting cases, the 8,233 cases represent only the tip of a predominantly submerged iceberg.
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